For the final (and very late) installment, I am going to focus on networks and the way they work during the settling process. While social networks provide a wide variety of important services in the lives of migrants, today I will focus on their role in providing food, housing, job information, social service information, legal awareness, and emotional support. Place networks operate in complex ways, and while they can be supportive, they can also be exploitative and limiting.
Social networks in the host location are valuable resources, as they have the potential to pass along information. While the information available spreads across many topics, I am focusing on employment because for the majority of my interviewees, their primary motivation for migrating is to find work. It is important to note that employment outcomes are not only contingent on networks but also on the social and economic environment that the migrants encounter upon arrival.
There is a lot of evidence to support the idea that for those in the informal labor market (sector where labor is not recognized by the state), social networks become increasingly vital to success (Niu et al. 2016, Zhang 2013, Woolcock and Narayan 2000). Awumbila, Teye, and Yaro (2017) attribute this to the fact that jobs in the informal sector are rarely widely advertised and that the characteristics of certain industries lead to employers preferring informal job seeking channels. For example, in the case that Awumbila, Teye, and Yaro (2017, 988) explore, that of domestic worker recruitment in Accra, Ghana, employers tend to be skeptical about employing people they do not know. This has proven to be true in the Chinese domestic worker employment market as well. An interview with Ms. Wang, a woman who had previously employed a domestic worker, brought to light the discomfort she felt having a stranger, and someone who was clearly defined as an employee in her home:
“I personally don’t like the idea of domestic worker labor brokerage agencies, it feels very commercial and I don’t like the idea of having a stranger in the home.“
Therefore, employers will be seeking through informal channels, causing workers to seek employment through informal channels as well. In addition, informal employment channels have the perception of being more trustworthy and safer. The following interaction with Ms. Qing, the mother of a 2 year old, demonstrates this sentiment quite clearly.
Me: Why did you hire your nanny through informal channels rather than seek out an agency?
Ms. Qing: I think it is a bit easier and more secure. Because, if you just hire a random woman from a random agency, you don’t know if what the agency says is true or if it really is that person. The woman who shows up could just be some random person.
The implication of this exchange is that hiring domestic workers that your friends, family, coworkers, etc. have had experience with, is much more secure because you have assurance from your own network.
While these examples come from a hiring perspective, informal networks are important for internal Chinese migrants not only because that is where demand is, but also because of structural factors. In the Chinese labor market, temporary migrants face institutional barriers blocking them from entering urban welfare schemes and as well as local prejudices against migrant workers (Wang and Fan 2012, Wang and Ning 2016, Zhong, Xu, and Piquero 2017). For example, interviews I have completed reflect a generally accepted prejudice against migrants from Henan, with people from various class backgrounds all reporting that people from Henan are dirty (卫生很差) and have low cultural quality (素质,文明很低).
These prejudices disadvantage workers in the job market, and therefore make social networks even more important for securing employment. The institutional and social barriers force migrants to depend on personal social networks as a job-seeking channels and information sources (Niu et al. 2016). Furthermore, studies have shown that even when access to formal channels is available, Chinese migrants often still prefer to use personal social networks, as they are “the most efficient and trustworthy job-search channels” (Niu et al. 2016, 85).
As Zhao (2003) finds, whereas migrants without networks would previously have been migrating “blind,” migrants with networks can rely on them to make the transition to cities easier by using them to find job, housing, and social information. For most migrants, personal social networks are necessary to enter the job market. The networks of Chinese domestic migrants usually are based on kinship or native-place ties (Niu et al. 2016, 74), when groups of migrants move together or follow relatives or neighbors to the city. The story of my friend Li, who moved to Shanghai nearly 10 years ago, shows this phenomenon very clearly:
“[When I first arrived,] I didn’t know what I was doing. [Girls I know from my hometown] helped me adjust to the city. When I got here I was just a rural girl, I didn’t even know how to ride the subway. Now that I have the knowledge, I can help other people.”
This quote really clearly displays the huge shift that takes place during the move to the city, and what a shock it can be. While less potent with the advent of cell phones and the improvement in the rural-urban gap, the arrival to the city can be quite overwhelming and traumatic without help.
The second role that networks play in the lives of migrant workers is as a source of emotional support. To quote Charles Tilly (2007, 5), “[social] networks have performed an enormous range of political, economic and spiritual work for human beings, especially those human beings who could not rely on governments to provide them with sustaining services.”
The idea behind social support networks and emotional health is quite simple, we are social creatures and therefore we fare better in groups. This finding has been accepted as a given across the social sciences (Vega et al. 1991, House, Landis, and Umberson 1988, Gottlieb 1978, Zhang 2013, Van der Ham et al. 2014a, Van der Ham et al. 2014b, Cohen and Wills 1985, Ritsner, Modai, and Ponizovsky 2000, Cassel 1974).
I am going to provide two examples: one from the literature and one from my own research. The first example is from Vega et al. (1991), a paper which looks at the puzzle of why depression rates among Mexican immigrant women are no higher than that of the non-immigrant population, despite facing high stress lifestyles. The findings show that the probability of distress decreases with the availability of family and friends. This suggests that having a strong social network during and after the migration period positively impacts emotional health.
The second example is from an interview I did a month ago with a live-in maid working for an international family.
Ms. Liu: I don’t have any really close friends, but I do speak a lot with my brothers and sisters. If I have something I am not happy about, I will tell them.
Me: Can you give me an example?
Ms. Liu: Lately, my husband and I were really not happy, we were fighting. So I talked to my sisters about it, to pour out my grievances. Even if they can’t help me actually deal with the problem, talking about it helps
This finding, that one of the most important function that the social network performs is that of listening to grievances, has been reported in studies of young mothers (Gottlieb 1978), illegal immigrants to the US (Vega et al. 1991), Fillipina nannies in Hong Kong (Van der Ham et al. 2014b), and is the one thing that has most surprised me about this research. I initially expected to be finding concrete ways that social networks provided support: lending money or providing critical information, but I have been consistently finding that the most important role these networks play are really just to be an active source of emotional support. I hope to share more information on this topic once I have a chance to fully go over all my data.
Limiting factors of social networks?
Going into this project, I made the mistake of creating assumptions early on. As a positivist, I expected that the networks would be mutually beneficial in all cases. However, that is not the reality. While networks do have positive effects, they can also be limiting and in some cases, toxic. In the interest of time, and also because I plan on doing a post devoted to this topic in the next month, this section will be quite brief:
- Limiting mobility: social networks are usually constructed of people who are alike, therefore in the case of immigrants, they are also constrained to job opportunities at this level and lack(Balderrama and Molina II 2009) the information or awareness of opportunities to progress (Boyd 1989, Woolcock and Narayan 2000)
- Gossip: Because employers use networks to ascertain the reputation of a worker, it becomes a necessity to maintain your reputation within your own networks (Van der Ham et al. 2014b). A quote from Awumbila, Teye, and Yaro (2017, 990) puts it concisely: “Thus even within networks, one must show qualities of reliability, trustworthiness and hard work to obtain and sustain jobs.” In this system, known associates, perceived ability, reliability all impact one’s own reputation. I think this aspect is very interesting, and very harmful. I will share some tidbits from my interviews in the post devoted to this topic.
- Extracting resources: If an individual is beset by requests by people within their network, including the pressure for remittances, it can be very hard to save or make selfish choices (Portes and Sensenbrenner 1993).
Social networks act in many surprising and interesting ways! Keep in mind the ways that they act negatively, as it will be expanded in my next post.
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 This sentiment might not be far off, in my field work I have witnessed the agency boss prep a woman for an interview with a family by slightly altering her story: working for a family for 1 year became working for the same family for 2 years, the reason for leaving shifted to a slightly more socially acceptable reason, etc.